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The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

The Woman in the Dunes (1962)

by Kōbō Abe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (37)  Dutch (2)  French (2)  All (41)
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
For me, this novel is a mix of the "Myth of Sisyphus" and "Waiting For Godot". An entomologist becomes ensnared in a Japanese village in sand dunes. A life of pointless repetitions drive him nearly mad as he plots many escapes. I found myself rooting for him and then wishing he would just accept his fate. This is a well-written, profoundly thought provoking existential tale. Not a light, summer beach read by any stretch of the imagination. ( )
  hemlokgang | Jul 23, 2017 |
Kobo Abe: The Woman in the Dunes

Kobo Abe (1924-1993) counted among his favourite authors, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Kafka, Nietzsche and Edgar Allan Poe. It is easy to see influences of all of these writers in this absurdist novel that deals with the structures of life and society and the meaning of life and relationships, all tied up in the constructs of identity.

Niki Jumpei (he is almost always referred to simply as "he" throughout the novel) has a boring office job in a boring life. He only real interest is amateur etymology and this takes him to a remote area of Japan, by the sea, to search for insects particular to living in sand. In the dunes, he finds a very small, lost village that doesn't even register on the map. Seeking a place to spend the night, he is taken to the home of a woman who has an extra bed. The odd feature is that the house is at the bottom of a deep pit in the sand. Niki thinks this strange but he is intrigued by the adventure that he will be able to recount, and he has a strong interest in the properties of sand. He is even more astonished to see that the woman (who remains nameless throughout the novel), must shovel buckets of sand every night to keep the hole from filling in and crushing the already rotted house. The buckets are pulled up by a group of workers using a rope system to take the sand away. He is even more surprised to see that the rope ladder by which he descended into the hole has disappeared and, finally, to realize that he is now a prisoner, expected to help the woman. He cajoles and threatens to no avail. He plans and almost succeeds to escape but is returned to the pit with the awareness that this is his life.

Abe sets out early a question that will frame much of the novel: "Certainly sand was not suitable for life. Yet, was a stationary condition absolutely indispensable for existence? Didn't unpleasant competition arise precisely because one tried to cling to a fixed position? If one were to give up a fixed position and abandon oneself to the movement of the sands, competition would soon stop." Sand that moves and shifts and shapes itself with the winds has a "shapeless, destructive power". Abe notes that this, "...very fact that it had no form was doubtless the highest manifestation of its strength...". The parallel is to the formless but powerful forces that shape our lives: fear, love, hatred, ambition, loss, success, failure, etc, etc...all the elements that shape our identity and often come to dominate it.

Those forces give structure to our lives but when the externalities are removed, the individual must fall back onto other anchors to retain a sense of self. And without the usual anchors of convention and society, there is a danger of unleashed, primitive forces. LIfe is a complex of people and relationships so filled with unknowns that one cannot even know where to start in looking for coherence or meaning. These are questions that Abe teases out through the unfolding story of the man and the woman imprisoned in the relentlessly moving, threatening sand and needing a way to not just live, but exist together.

Abe refers several times to a Mobius circle in the context of persons and situations. Such a circle allows travelling along both sides of a strip without crossing a boundary. A fitting metaphor for the long traverses and complexities of life within the boundaries of birth and death.
  John | Jun 28, 2017 |
'The sand...ten or twenty feet pile up in a night no matter what you do'
By sally tarbox on 12 Dec. 2013
Format: Paperback
A totally gripping read: a Japanese insect-collector goes off to spend his holiday in the sand-dunes, hoping to find some new species which will bear his name:'his efforts are crowned with success if his name is perpetuated in the memory of his fellow men by being associated with an insect'.
When night falls, he is forced to seek shelter, and is offered a room in a rickety house with a young widow, down a dune, accessible only by rope ladder. When day dawns, he finds the ladder has been removed, and he is expected to spend his nights assisting the woman in loading buckets with sand, otherwise her house (and the village) will be overwhelmed with sand.
I was dubious about the cover's calling it 'Kafkaesque' and 'existential'. would it be too deep for this reader to get the meaning? The answer is no, it's very accessible. As our insect-collector gets used to the awful surroundings, he begins to comprehend how the villagers stay in this god-forsaken spot:
'He could easily understand how it was possible to live such a life. There were kitchens...blaring radios and broken radios...and in the midst of them all were scattered hundred-yen pieces, domestic animals, children, sex, promissory notes, adultery, incense burners, souvenir photos, and...It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.'
Caught up in the minutiae of life: whether it's work, like a hamster on a wheel; sensual enjoyments; materialistic ambition (the woman aspires to buy a radio); or engrossing if ultimately futile pastimes (the man finds new insects in his dune); humans find meaning in lives which when considered dispassionately are pretty pointless.
Exciting and thought-provoking, this was a great read. ( )
1 vote starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
fabulous and very unique story ( )
1 vote vernefan | Jun 6, 2016 |
Tedious, exhausting and utterly depressing. ( )
  LaPhenix | Mar 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (28 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kōbō Abeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abe, MachiIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cornips, ThérèseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gross, AlexCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saunders, E. DaleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One day in August a man disappeared.
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Es gibt wahrhaftig kein wunderlicheres, so von Neid zerfressenes Wesen wie einen Schullehrer! Da strömen die Schüler Jahr für Jahr gleich einem Fluß an ihm vorbei, nur er selber bleibt wie ein tief auf dem Grund des Flusses liegender Stein zurück. Er kann wohl anderen von Hoffnungen erzählen, aber ihm selber sind sie nicht erlaubt. Er kommt sich nutzlos vor und verfällt entweder in selbstquälerischen Trübsinn oder wird ein Moralprediger, der anderen vorschreiben will, wie sie zu leben haben. Eigenwilligkeit und Tatkraft anderer müssen ihm schon deswegen zuwider sein, weil er selber sich aus tiefster Seele danach sehnt.
"... Schriftsteller werden zu wollen, bedeutet, von Egoismus besessen zu sein; man will sich von einer Marionette dadurch unterscheiden, daß man selber als Puppenspieler in Erscheinung tritt. Insofern unterscheidet man sich nicht wesentlich von Frauen, die ein Make-up benutzen."

"Das ist zu hart formuliert! Aber wenn sie schon das Wort Schriftsteller in diesem Sinne gebrauchen, sollten Sie wenigstens bis zu einem gewissen Grad zwischen einem Schriftsteller und dem Schreiben unterscheiden!"

"Ja, genau das meine ich. Eben aus diesem Grund wollte ich Schriftsteller werden. Und wenn mir das nicht gelingt, sehe ich nicht ein, weshalb ich schreiben sollte!"
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679733787, Paperback)

This beautiful novel by one of Japan's most important writers is also one of the most strangely terrifying and memorable books you'll ever read. The Woman in the Dunes is the story of an amateur entomologist who wanders alone into a remote seaside village in pursuit of a rare beetle he wants to add to his collection. But the townspeople take him prisoner. They lower him into the sand-pit home of a young widow, a pariah in the poor community, who the villagers have condemned to a life of shoveling back the ever-encroaching dunes that threaten to bury the town. An amazing book.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:59 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In this famous postwar Japanese novel, the first of Abe's to be translated into English, Niki Jumpei, an amateur entomologist in pursuit of a rare specimen of beetle, wanders into a strange seaside village, whose residents all live in sandpits. He is taken prisoner, and, along with a widow cast out by the community, he is forced to move into her sandpit and continually shovel away the sand that threatens to take over the village. In Niki's struggles to escape his prison and his developing relationship with the woman, he gradually comes to understand the existential nature of life.… (more)

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